On the side of a dark road one night, Isley Reust hit close to rock bottom.
The transgender indie rocker had been seeing herself falling since she was a teenager, really, but that's the thing about the drinks and the drugs, she says: The more she took them, the more she avoided. And so the cycle went — until then, at 21, she found herself inebriated and nervous, pulling her vehicle over as the flare of a cop car's lights bounced all around her.
She'd been in that situation a few times before that night, which is now thankfully just a bad memory nine years behind her. Another evening spent partying, another night swerving down the black roads, another night of escaping the fact that she needed to just take a break from it all to reach out a hand to the woman trapped under the wreckage. Sometimes she got home without a hitch, and other nights she wasn't so lucky. Twice in her early 20s she'd been arrested for driving drunk, and another time she got hauled in for a drug possession while traveling with her band.
"While touring and being on the road I just saw my life slipping away," she recalls to The Advocate. With wide, sincere eyes she often accentuates with her signature dark makeup and blond hair she at one time kept a refreshing bright blue, she's unrecognizable as the subject of the tale she's telling. Now an out trans woman with years of sobriety behind her, Reust is poised to release a debut album with her new all-woman band Spectacular Spectacular, and she could not be more lively and thrilled to be herself.
Spectacular Spectacular's debut single, "Orange Juice"
Still, she'll talk about the past, those days when, she says, "I wasn't happy. I saw my transition so out of reach." And though she never set out to make it her calling, she's fallen into telling stories from the darkest period in her life so other trans people numbing themselves with substances can know they're not alone — and that there is, indeed, hope on the other side.
"I was on a path of destruction and knew I'd end up dead if I didn't fix it soon," Reust admits. The last night she was arrested particularly sticks in her memory, as rude awakenings are apt to do. And this one was beyond rude.
That night, the nerves hit her 21-year-old self hard on the side of the isolated road as her mind flashed to her ID, which still glared back at her with a male birth name — increasingly foreign to her now that she'd started presenting more and more as her female self — and a rigid, pointy "M" listed under "sex."
Asked to step out of the car and relinquish her ID by a police officer, Reust recalls him looking at her. "'What's between your legs?" he asked brusquely. And it only got worse when she was taken down to the local police station, where she faced a nightmare that's all too common among imprisoned trans women. "All I remember is how awful I was treated," Reust recounts. "They made me out to be some sort of sideshow spectacle and made extreme and derogatory remarks about my gender. They put me in a cell with other men who proceeded to do the same to me."
"I shouldn't have been driving drunk and I deserved to be arrested for putting lives at risk," she adds. "But I didn't deserve to have my gender made a mockery of."
It wasn't long after that she quit playing music for nearly three years. She simply got up and, as she puts it, "vanished." She landed in Los Angeles, a city where she learned the definition of "rebirth" in more ways than one.
On the other side of her hiatus — one in which she cut ties with nearly everyone she'd once known in the music scene, went to art school, and finally began the hormone therapy she'd long dreamed of accessing — she would eventually reemerge a far more centered, whole woman. She would meet singer Jessica De Grasse and begin conceiving the band that would eventually become Spectacular Spectacular. But she still had one more hurdle to pass: She was, for all intents and purposes, dying. Her body had mysteriously begun to shut down; by the end of 2011 her immune system and liver had all but failed, while her bladder housed a softball-sized tumor. Months of testing eventually revealed that she had hepatitis C.
"I was devastated," she recalls. "And during those months I honestly finally realized how fragile life actually is." Within a few weeks, Reust sold nearly everything she owned and left the life she'd built around her one more time, striking out for San Francisco. Her only goals: regaining her health and living the second-chance life that her gender transition and powerful hepatitis medication had granted her. And that meant getting back to music.
Reust says she grabbed hold of life from that point forward. "I remember going out on tour for the first time after I fully transitioned and being so happy and confident with myself," she recalls. "I finally felt happy being the woman I was, nothing was going to drag me down."
It wasn't long afterward that Spectacular Spectacular was born. Adding bassist Millie Chan to the lineup, the trio soon began traveling to the most beautiful landscapes they could find — from Redwood National Park to Mount St. Helens — to pen songs. And their first album, Blur, set for release Tuesday, shows the care and roaming diversity that went into its three-year gestation. Already garnering comparisons to female-led indie groundbreakers like Garbage and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Spectacular Spectacular has released a hauntingly catchy, disco-infused single, "Orange Juice," to critical acclaim. A second single, "Saturday Night," is currently making the rounds online.
The Isley Reust of today — healthy, usually smiling, and brimming with energy as she prepares to launch Blur — seems both surprised and unsurprised by her incredible journey. And she's paying the gift of life forward by talking about it, another unexpected turn of events for her that nonetheless seems almost fated. The now-30-year-old, usually slightly less in the foreground as a keyboardist, backup singer, and songwriter, says she found her voice for storytelling when she was asked last year to interview for out trans rocker Laura Jane Grace's AOL Originals documentary series, True Trans.
"That show was the first time I publicly talked about being transgender," Reust says. She hasn't paused since, and no one's asking her to. She's not sparing the unfavorable details either, because this is her truth; she's not going back to not living it. "I never set out to be an inspirational woman or role model of any sort. It just sort of happened on its own," she shares. "I just wanted to stop living a lie and be myself."
This has included running a popular YouTube channel where she gives transition updates and makeup tutorials to a devoted fan base of more than 7,000 viewers, many of them other trans women. Some fans, empowered by her story, even comment on the videos or tell her in person that they too have gone through dark periods before being able to embrace themselves. Most end up thanking her, with some even calling her "sister" or admitting that she has saved their lives.
"I think it's so beautiful," says Reust modestly. But she doesn't take all the credit. She mentions the work of Grace and other trans musicians who have gone before her. And she seems, in a sense, to be paying forward the acceptance she's largely received from her family and fellow musicians since coming out. "I have received so much love and support from [my bandmates], and that in itself helped me continue what I'm doing today," she explains to The Advocate. "I think the best stories or conversations I've had with fans over the last few years were the ones who have transitioned themselves. I've been told that my journey and story helped them be able to come out and be the person they were always meant to be."
Every morning now Reust — a woman once so hopeless she could barely imagine not dying young — finds herself awaking excited to see the future.
"I think a beautiful thing about being a part of the arts/music community is that mostly everyone is usually open-minded and accepting," she reflects. "I, of course, think we still have more work to do as far as improvements go, but it's heading in the right direction, which is amazing. I still don't know a lot of trans women or men in the music scene, but every day that goes by I learn of more, and I know one day together we are all going to make a big change for the world."